By Jeff Ritter
Every good story needs a hero. Our ancient myths are filled with them: Gilgamesh, Prometheus, Sigurd, and Hua Mulan spring to mind. In modern fiction, there are many enduring heroes as well: Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Superman, and James Bond share the same fundamental traits of undertaking physical or spiritual journeys, sacrificing some part of all of themselves to beat impossible odds.
In that the hero concept has long been at the core of professional wrestling, along comes “Luchadora!,” an entertaining family-friendly look at modern luchas and classic myths from playwright Alvaro Saar Rios.
All ages should enjoy this joint effort from Mustard Seed Theatre and Theatre Nuevo, especially pro wrestling fans. A strong ensemble presents a vibrant tale of hopes and dreams, family secrets, and finding one’s purpose, plus it’s fun, too.
“Hold on!” you say? “Wrestling is fake!” Wrestlers would tell you it’s not fake, but rather choreographed. But they would also tell you that at its absolute best, pro wrestling is an extremely physical form of theatre in which the participants tell a story through words and actions.
In Mexico, pro wrestling is known as Lucha Libre, which means “free fight.” It started in the 19th century but became a true cultural phenomenon in the middle of the 20th century. The sport was dominated by male athletes, called luchadores. Slowly, over time, women became involved in the ring as well – thus luchadoras.
Set in the late 1960s, “Luchadora!” is the tale of Lupita (Thalia Cruz), a teenage girl who helps her Father (Rahamses Galvan) sell flowers at his little flower cart in southern Texas. She’s a normal teenage girl who likes to ride her bicycle with her friends, German immigrant children Leopold (Cassidy Flynn) and Liesl (Ashley Skaggs).
Her Father, a widower, has a bad back stemming from a secret that changes Lupita’s life forever. Imagine finding out your father was about as close to being a real-life superhero as mere mortals can get.
Then imagine he gets called out of his secret, self-imposed retirement by the son of his arch rival, the hulking El Hijo (Carl Overly, Jr.). Much like the legend of Mulan, Lupita bucks tradition and secretly trains under the tough but fair Mask Maker (Cassandra Lopez), who knows many secrets Lupita didn’t know about her mother.
Lupita’s story is told in a series of flashbacks, framed by a conversation between Vanessa (Isabel Garcia) and Nana Lupita (Carmen Garcia), set in modern Milwaukee.
Vanessa is a child of the 21st century, hand glued to her intrusive cell phone, which irritates her Nana as she tries to share her own family secret with her grandchild, who is hiding a secret from her own mother.
In the flashback sequences, we find out that Leo and Liesl have had their own encounters with family secrets as their big sister Hannah (Hannah Pauluhn) ran away from home to join the Army against her father’s wishes.
The climactic main event is announced by Ryan Lawson-Maeske, who, like several of the other actors, doubles as local kids and newspaper boys.
“Luchadora!” is an incredibly endearing production, balancing the classic hero myth with the modern lucha libre/pro wrestling performance art that is typically lost on the average WWE viewer.
The set and lighting, designed by David Blake and Michael Sullivan, respectively, invoke a gritty, “Rocky Balboa training montage” atmosphere while also keeping the Garcia family (yes, Carmen is Isabel’s real-life mother!) separate but present.
Cassandra Lopez brings an air of mystery to her performance. She’s more than just a female Obi-Wan Kenobi or Mr. Miyagi as she encourages Lupita to attempt something very few women did in the glory days of lucha libre—namely wrestle at all.
Galvan is very enjoyable to watch, blending humor and pathos to make his hard-working man/loving father character feel realistic. No man who has put himself through hell to provide for his family wishes those same hardships on his child.
Overly Jr. shines as the monster rudo El Hijo (rudo is a lucha term for bad guy, the good guys are technicos), cutting promos — trash talking — on the long-lost superstar Máscara Rosa.
Thalia Cruz is perfectly cast as the heroine of this story. She plays Lupita with the self-assurance of a teen who already knows everything balanced against an emotional youth discovering that she actually knows very little about her own family.
She projects enough vulnerability to make the audience care about her and enough physicality to seem plausible as a luchadora.
The fight choreography by Mark Kelley plays like a highlight reel, wisely keeping the action minimized since the fight itself is not the important part of Lupita’s story.
Director Anna Skidis Vargas, who recently won the Best Actress in a Musical Award from the St. Louis Theatre Circle for New Line Theatre’s “Lizzie,” has orchestrated a production with strong female characters and feminist themes that doesn’t sink into man-hating.
Men and women, young and old alike will enjoy “Luchadora!” Such is the power of classic storytelling.
Bring the kids and grandparents for a fun family theatre treat and who knows – you might learn some things you never knew about your own family when discussing the show afterwards.
“Luchadora!” runs June 1 – 17, with Thursday and Friday performances at 8 p.m., Saturday performances at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Thursday, June 1, is Pay What You Can – Pay With a Can admission. The Mustard Seed Theatre is located on the campus of Fontbonne University at 6800 Wydown Blvd. For more information please visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com or call 314-719-8060.